Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Remembering 11.18.99 - The Collapse of the Texas Aggie Bonfire

For those that don't know me well, I am a proud member of the Fightin' Texas Aggie Class of 2000 (which means that I attended Texas A&M University in College Station, TX and began that journey in the fall of 1996). Being that I began college in the fall of 96, and was seeking a 4 year degree, simple math puts me as a May 2000 graduate. Thanks to changing majors a few times, I didn't quite make the May 2000 deadline, but did graduate in December of that year. I also went back and got my Masters degree from A&M, graduating in December of 2002.

My college experience overall was a great one. There were definitely some bumps in the road, but I absolutely loved the school that I chose to go to - it's the only one I applied to, because there was never anywhere else that seemed to 'fit'. When reflecting on my time at A&M, I can without a doubt pinpoint the most defining moment of my college career - the collapse of the Fightin Texas Aggie Bonfire on the morning of November 18, 1999.

1999 had been a very hard year for me - I lost one of my high school friends in a car accident in March of that year, my grandfather passed away in October, and then Bonfire in November. I can still remember every detail about that day, and the days that followed. Much like 9-11, these details will likely live with me forever.

At around 5:30 in the morning the phone rang. Being that we were college students, no one called that early. I answered to a guy asking for my roommate, and rudely told him that she was asleep and would have to call him back another time. Then he asked if we were both ok. Well duh, of course we were ok. We were asleep. Then he asked if I knew what had happened. At that point I knew something major was wrong. He told me about Bonfire and let me know that many people were trapped, and there were likely many presumed dead. I let him know that we were fine, thanked him for calling, and hung up the phone. I went into my roommate's room and let her know what had happened - she was much more involved in Bonfire than I was because she was in charge of it for her dorm when we lived on campus. I then called my parents, and then my boyfriend at the time. He had a test at 8am that morning and asked if I could take him to class - the parking lot that he would usually park in was the lot nearest the polo fields where Bonfire was held, and he knew there would not be parking available. Of course I agreed.

The next couple of hours were spent laying in bed and praying for those that were injured, and asking God to spare the lives of those working on a tradition that, as a university, we held so dear. Eventually it was time to take J to his test, as we were driving down University Dr., it was quite eerie to look over and see 'stack' missing. Then, as to jolt us back to reality, an ambulance came screaming by. Based on the timelines that I've seen, the person in that ambulance would have been Tim Kerlee Jr. - an angel in his own right who would become the ultimate 12th Man.

I was scheduled to work lunch that day at Carino's. Reluctantly I headed into the restaurant wondering how anyone in the college town could even stomach the thought of food at that point. When I got there, I was happy to join in the flurry of activity in the kitchen - we were making as much food as possible to send out to the polo fields in order to sustain those that were painstakingly figuring out how to unstack the logs as to not harm anyone else. I did have a couple of tables to wait on that day, but overall, the activity was focused on helping others.

As soon as I got off, I headed home to change clothes and then went out to the fields to find my dorm friends and watch and pray that they would bring someone else out alive. That evening there was a gathering of students and the community at Reed Arena, and J and I headed that way. I was in such a state of shock the entire day that I could not cry. It was surreal, as if it really wasn't happening. I could probably speak for most when I say we wish we could just wake up from a really bad dream. As I was walking into Reed Arena, I heard someone call my name, it was my friend from home, Jenni - the one I was most worried about as she was probably the most active friend I had in Bonfire. I ran up to give her a hug and she told me to be careful - she had been on a swing when Bonfire went down and her back was all messed up. I guess I had reason to worry. Being able to see that she was ok was a definite relief. J & I were some of the last ones to actually make it into the arena. There were no seats left, so we sat on the stairs in the upper section. I know people spoke, but I couldn't tell you anything anyone said. And then the ceremony was over. No one moved. No one wanted to leave that place. Then, throughout the arena people started putting their arms around their neighbors, like we do when they play the Aggie War Hymn. And then, you could hear the faint beginnings of 'Amazing Grace' - the crowd started singing in unison. I tried to sing - I couldn't. The words stuck in my throat - I just couldn't get them out past the emotion that I was hanging on to... but it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.

After the ceremony I had to go back to work to teach a class to the new people that had been hired. I met a girl that night that would become one of my very best friends, which is a random side note, but I will always remember meeting her. As soon as the classroom was over, I headed back up to the polo fields and met up with J. There was one person left in stack - Miranda Adams, and she was a cousin or a friend of someone that he was friends with. We were hanging on to a sliver of hope that she might be pulled out alive. Just after midnight that hope was gone as they were finally able to remove enough logs to get to her and retrieve her body - she was gone. At that point, all people were accounted for - deceased, injured, or alive. And everyone started making their way home...

These events all occured on the Thursday before Thanksgiving. Classes were cancelled the following Wednesday, but we had to somewhat return to normal for the other 3 days of classes, although normal is hardly the word I would use. There was nothing normal going on in College Station. The media was relentless - so many times it felt as if they were disrespectful as we would try to pay our respects at the makeshift memorials that had been set up. I know there was a story to tell, but did it have to be so close? I just remember having those thoughts. This was personal, why couldn't they just leave us alone for a bit? One afternoon J and I headed out of town to go eat at a restaurant about 30 minutes away - just to get a bit of a reprieve. As we were heading back, on the radio I heard a letter read from the Student Body Vice President from The University of Texas at Austin, our rival. The letter follows:

Bonfire Letter
by Eric Opiela, UT Student Body Vice President

I had the great privilege of attending the memorial service at A&M tonight and was deeply moved by the events I experienced. The A&M student body is truly one of the great treasures of our State.

As part of the UT delegation, we sat on the floor of Reed Arena, and immediately following the end of the service, I heard this rustling sound behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw the sight of close to 20,000 students spontaneously putting their arms on their neighbor’s shoulders, forming a great circle around the arena.

The mass stood there in a pin-drop silence for close to five minutes, then, from somewhere, someone began to hum quietly the hymn "Amazing Grace". Within seconds, the whole arena was singing. I tried too—I choked, I cried.

This event brought me to tears. It was one if not the defining moment of my college career. I learned something tonight. For all us Longhorns discount A&M in our neverending rivalry, we need to realize one thing. Aggieland is a special place, with special people. It is infinitely better equipped than us at dealing with a tragedy such as this for one simple reason. It is a family. It is a family that cares for its own, a family that reaches out, a family that is unified in the face of adversity; a family that moved this Longhorn to tears. My heart, my prayers; and the heart of the UT student body go out tonight to Aggies and their family and friends as they, recover, from this great loss. Texas A&M, The Eyes of Texas are Upon You—and they look with sincere sympathy upon a family that has been through so much tragedy this semester.

And then I cried. For the first time, it hit me, and was real. And I still cry when I think about it, or when I talk about it. The sorrow of Bonfire was to the Aggie Family what 9-11 was to the nation - it was the most horrific thing we could have ever imagined.

In the days and weeks that followed, I attended the Bonfire Memorial on Thanksgiving night, the night Bonfire should have burned, followed by Yell Practice, where instead of having a Yell Practice, people lit their candles again instead, and Kyle Field was filled with candle light - it was breathtakingly beautiful. And I attended the game against UT the next day, where the Aggies prevailed (Baumgartner caught that crazy pass right in front of the section we were sitting in) and the Longhorn band's tribute was one of the classiest and moving tributes I have seen. Maybe their response to our tragedy is the reason that, even though they are our rivals, I still have such respect for the school as a whole... There is now a Bonfire Memorial built on the polo fields. I went to the dedication, and then a few years ago, finally mustered the strength to walk through it on my own - they did a beautiful job capturing what Bonfire was about, as well as the lives of the 12 that we lost.

Below are a few videos, links and stories that shed a little more light on this event in case your interested. I'll close with a few lines that took on profound meaning in the days that followed the collapse...

Some may boast of prowess bold
Of the school they think so grand
But there's a spirit can ne'er be told
It's the Spirit of Aggieland.

The Fallen 12

Miranda Adams

Chris Breen

Michael Ebanks

Jeremy Frampton

Jamie Hand

Timothy Kerlee Jr.

Lucas Kimmel

Bryan McClain

Chad Powell

Nathan Scott West

Jerry Self

Christopher Heard

I'm having some issues embedding videos, but here are the links to some videos:

Arms of an Angel Rememberance Tribute (I still can't hear this song without it taking me right back to those days...)

If you've never seen Bonfire burn, THIS is worth watching...

The Twelfth Man
by Fred Maddox

The twelve young people who died were truly remarkable kids. They were scholars, student athletes, active in Boy Scouts, 4-H, Church groups, they were leaders. If you had to chose a dozen students to represent the best of Texas A&M, you probably wouldn't do much better than these.

I have just learned about Timothy Doran Kerlee, Jr. He was the twelfth student to die, when his life support was disconnected last Friday evening. Let me tell you about this amazing kid.

Tim graduated last year from Germantown High School in Germantown, Tennessee. He was an Eagle Scout, graduated third in his class, and was elected to his High School Hall of Fame. He was a student athlete, and a member of the National Honor Society. He was active in the youth group and drama club at his Methodist Church.

He was actively recruited by Texas A&M, and when he enrolled he tested out of his entire freshman year. That is how this 17 year-old could be classified as a sophomore. Tim's father said that he was thrilled to be at A&M, and especially excited about bonfire. When the stack collapsed, his pelvis was crushed, his arm was broken, and his internal organs were scrambled like an omelette.

On the front page of Friday's Dallas Morning News is a large photo of the collapsed stack taken during the early part of the rescue effort. You can see a team working at the base of the logs to save a trapped student. About five feet above the rescue team is Tim Kerlee, reclining on a pile of logs, propped up on one elbow. Unless you look carefully at the photo you will probably not notice that his legs are laying in an odd position. What was happening, according to the rescue teams, was that Kerlee was directing the teams to other students trapped in the stack. He kept telling them that he was O.K., and he directed rescuers to at least five other students before he allowed them to take him down from the stack.

He was taken into emergency surgery, and when they opened him up they found his organs so badly damaged that they couldn't identify much of what they saw. They closed him up, wrapped him in a sheet to hold him together, and placed on life support. He lived long enough to see and speak to his parents. He was aware that he was dying and asked to be removed from life support. When his parents asked him why he wanted to, he asked them why he should fight for a few more days of life when he could be in Heaven with Jesus right now.

Well, he got his wish. I feel sorry that I never had a chance to know Tim Kerlee, but I praise God for kids like Tim Kerlee. If you had to pick a twelfth man you couldn't do much better.


  1. Thanks for this post. Although I was just a junior in high school when this happened and was nowhere near Aggieland, I have always been touched by this tragedy. Traditions like Bonfire were the biggest reasons I became an Aggie and the reaction of the Aggie family to this tragedy sealed that decision.

    One of my best memories of being in College Station was going to the Bonfire memorial with you the night before the dedication. It was a defining moment for me being determined to finish my degree at A&M.

    May we forever remember those 12 who gave their lives. While most of us did not know them, their memory is forever burned into our hearts.

    Oh and here's a link to Aggie Bonfire 1998 (the last on campus bonfire):

  2. Thank you for sharing your memories of the bonfire. It was such a great tradition. And the new memorial is beautiful. Although I never went to A&M, my blood still runs maroon. More than half of my family have gone to or at A&M. My greatest memories are at A&M. I will never forget the years that I went to the bonfire.

    I was living in Memphis when the bonfire fell. I lived in the town next to where Tim Kerlee grew up. The outpour of love and support from Germantown, TN was amazing and his parents were phenomenal!

    My God bless everyone effected by the bonfire. And we always remember those 12 that lost their lives and the others that were hurt.

    Gig'Em Aggies and God Bless

  3. Thank you for such a heart-felt post about your experience. I think you are truly one of the lucky ones to have experienced Bonfire for all it was and to also have experienced the Aggie Spirit for all it is in the wake of Bonfire's collapse.

    May God richly bless you.

    Donna '95

  4. This is a beautiful post. Thank you. I know that everytime Abby has been to the campus for swim, she comes home and says that it is like 'being in a family'. I know that A&M is at the top of her choices for schools. Again, Thank you for sharing this special moment in time with all of us who can only dream the Aggie Spirit.